Satyajit Ray's "The Middleman," now in its first American theatrical engagement at the K B Janus, is a witty, quietly devastating addition to his ongoing saga of corruption Indian style.
Shot in Calcutta in 1975, the film represents a clever restatement of themes and plot elements originated in his informal trilogy of the early '70s: "Days and Nights in the Forest,"
It's another self-contained veriation on the theme of now aspiring young members of the Calcutta intelligentsia or professional elite respond to the compromising pressures exterted by a teeming, mercenary urban economy and culture.
Like "Company Limited," "The Middleman" is an ironic surress story. Somnath, the wellbred, well-educated likable but weak-willed young protagonist, drifts into a shady business carrer after spending months looking in vain for a job befitting a university graduate.
After several convivial middle-aged hustlers take pity on his helplessness, feel flattered by his deference and agree to enlighten him, Somnath begins to prosper as a middleman. He earns commissions by supplying useful bits of information to his colleagues and by inventing non-essential services in the gap between manufacturer and customer.
After months of inactivity and insolvency, Somnath feels understandably elated. As a middlesman he's busy and he's got money in his pocket. Unfortunately, the Bengali term for "middleman" has a sordid double meeting - pimp Eventually, Somnath must accept this role in a literal sense if he hopes to get even further ahead in his foolishly chosen profession.
Both "The Middleman" and "Company limited" derive from novels by the Bengali writer Shankar and rely on a durable and romantic structure: They trace the rise of a young man on the make who makes it at the expense of his self-respect.
Ray's reliance on literary sources ("Days and Nights in the Forest" and "The Adversary" were based on books by Sunil Ganguli, and Ray's earlier Apu Trilogy derived from books by Bibhuti Bhusan Bannerjee) probably tends to discredit him among cineastes who prefer to keep holy communion exclusively with imagery (and usually static imagery). It will always seem a virtue to those who value the medium's capacity to transfigure literary and documentary material.
A two-hour running time doesn't allow Ray the leisure of a novelist, but he shares a good noveist's appreciation of behavior. "The Middleman" has one of the most colorful galleries of characters ever observed in a Ray movie.
The most entertaining are undoubtedly Somnath's roguish business mentors. These wily brokers and agents can scarely be considered desirable role models. On the other hand, they're effectual models, an irony that stings, because Somnath's worried, dignified father, apparently a retired teacher or civil servant, doesn't know how to help his son professionally or spiritually. His innate decency is neutralized by his inefiectuality.
Indeed, one of the imperatives of the household is to keep papa in the dark about the cruel competitive realities and inequities his sons are compelled to deal with. The real father sits at home and broods in silence. The surrogate fathers down at the office take a paternal interest in Somnath that produces some practical benefits. They're too wordly for their own good, but Papa's unworldliness would leave Somnath in the lurch too.
But even the smart operators reveal telltale signs of anxiety. As Bishu, the middleman who introduces Somnath to the profession. Utpal Dutt flashes oddly crazed, shifty-eyed expressions that make one doubt the airy self-confidence of his pronouncements. Bishu may have it all figured out, but his eyes seem to betray some recurrent fear of being found out and taken away.
In a similar repect, Robi Ghosh complicates one's initial impressions of a delightfully sleazy publicity agent named Mitter. In an emergency it becomes apparent that hustling little Mitter doesn't have things all figured out either. He gets panicky. The sleaze begins to sweat, exposing him as a small-time operator whose insecurities are very easily activated.
Although his moral default parallels the story of the successful young executive in "Company Limited," Somnath also recalls Siddhartha, the protagonist of "The Adversary." They might have been classmates. Each is faced with the debilitating task of competing for jobs in a market swarming with unemployed ex-students from the Brahmin class.
Siddhartha had more pride and independence than Somnath, whose very passivity helps to seal his fate.
Flawlessly embodies by Pradib Mukherjee, Somnath is too weak to be heroic. He remains the patsy of a social satire.
Comic twists determine his destiny. It appears that Somnath may have been denied honors - and a possible shot at a secure, reputable job - by a teacher who was too irritable and near-sighted to read his exam paper thoroughly and compromised by assigning it an arbitrary passing grade. (This detail will strike a sympathetic paranoid chord in many old grads) Later, Somnath attracts Bishu's attention is literally slipping on a banana peel.
Ray's outlook is too realistic to allow "The Middleman" to slip into the sentimental complacency that ultimedies like mately compromised Billy Wilder comedies like "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie." Ray keeps the gags discreet. Most of the humor derives from accurate observation of quirky, oblivious behavior, which seems funny because it expresses authentic, self-centered drives, not because it solicits a laugh.
In addition, Ray never insists that his all too culpable, small-souled protagonist is really a lovable schnook when all is said and done. Somnath capitulates too easily to be let off the hook. He lacks the saving tenacity and integrity of a comic hero, like the Nino Manfredi character in "Bread and Chocolate."
Ironically, "The Middleman" seems all the more touching and devastating for being free of sentimental condescension. A comic portrait of weakness exploited and exposed at an early stage of "maturity", Ray's movie reflects the steadiness of an artist who can hold a mirror up to nature without immediately desiring to distort or idealize the reality reflected back.
"The Middleman" also enriches a cycle of films which could expand into a great social epic, a cumulative human comedy about contemporary bourgeois society in Ray's part of India. The existing chapters in this speculative chronicle have a peculiar resonance here, since the problems are so familiar and the faces so exotic.
It's unlikely that corruption Indian style - Perceived by Ray and the authors he adapts as a frantic corruption of corruption British colonial style will cease to flourish.
Ray, whose work has always been unified by a coherent vision of his national history and culture, displays no signs of losing his exceptionally comprehensive and tolerant powers of perception.
Not the least of those powers in his ability to express both the absurdity and pathos implicit in Somnath's capitulation. "The Middleman" succeeds in making high comedy out of genteel social depravity.